WHY CIVIL SERVICE REFORMS FAIL
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IDPM Public Policy and Management Working Paper no.16
Tactical choices in the design and implementation of civil service reform can determine whether it succeeds or fails. Yet researchers have paid scant attention to tactical issues in recent years. This paper considers three such issues: the scope of reform, the role of aid donors, and the leadership of reform. In each area it considers what sort of approach is likely to maximise the chances of success. However, the paper seeks to go beyond prescribing lessons, also looking at institutional and other reasons why reformers may be impelled to make the wrong tactical choices. Charles Polidano is Director of Strategy and Planning at the Office of the Prime Minister, Malta. Between 1996 and 1999 he lectured in public sector management at the University of Manchester. His work has appeared in several journals including Public Administration, Political Studies and World Development. He is co-editor (with Martin Minogue and David Hulme) of Beyond the New Public Management: Changing Ideas and Practices in Governance (Edward Elgar, 1998).
WHY CIVIL SERVICE REFORMS FAIL
Most reforms in government fail. They do not fail because, once implemented, they yield unsatisfactory outcomes. They fail because they never get past the implementation stage at all. They are blocked outright or put into effect only in tokenistic, half-hearted fashion.
Observers who have followed recent reforms in countries such as Britain, New Zealand and Australia may be surprised at this. Whatever else one can say about public sector change initiatives in these countries, one cannot deny that they were vigorously implemented. But there was an exceptionally high degree of political backing for reform in these countries. Elsewhere in the world, and in these same countries previously, the record has been dismal (Caiden 1991; Kiggundu 1998). Various authors have sought to make recommendations on how to improve the prospects for success (Jacobs 1998; Wescott 1999). The difficulty is that quite often, the prescriptions that are offered have as much to do with the content of reform (what sort of initiatives should be taken) as with the approach (how to go about it). Moreover, there is a tendency to stop at prescription without asking why the lessons are disregarded time and again.
Here my focus is on the approach to reform, not its content. My assumption is that what matters most in improving the record of implementation are the strategic and tactical decisions taken in the course of putting the reforms into effect. The WHY C I V I L S E R V I C E R E F O RM S F A I L
content of reform makes little difference to the success rate, in the sense that different kinds of reforms – decentralisation, new public management, capacity-building however defined – have shown themselves to be equally prone to failure (Polidano 2001).1
This of course equates ‘success’ in reform with proper implementation, which is to say that reforms are put into effect as intended and are not blocked or watered down. I accept that this is a narrow definition of success, one that disregards the question of whether or not the changes do subsequently yield their hoped-for beneficial impact. But I would submit that it is a valid perspective, given the overwhelming tendency of reform to fail at the implementation stage. In this paper I look at three key tactical issues: the scope of reform, the role of aid donors, and the leadership of change. The centrality of these issues has emerged in country after country (Harrigan 1998; Hirschmann 1993; Jacobs 1998; Schacter 1995; Wescott 1999), and it has been brought home to me by my own experience as a practitioner...
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